Was James Buchanan a Racist? Libertarians and Historical Research

Note: if you are here because of my discussions of Nancy Maclean’s book, I have several follow-up posts to this one:

This is the cover a new book by Duke historian Nancy MacLean. I was dreading reading it because MacLean is a terrific historian; I’ve long admired her history of the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan, Behind the Mask of Chivalry. This new book appeared to be the history I am working on: its thesis is that the white south’s program of Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was the start of the right wing’s current attempts to disenfranchise voters and to undermine democracy in order to let the free market operate.

MacLean’s book turns out to be much different from the one I hope to write; her focus is on economist James M. Buchanan who moved easily in the corridors of power in Virginia and beyond. The folks I’m interested in consider Buchanan a pseudo-libertarian for these very reasons. In many ways, MacLean’s book is a story of the straightforward successes of libertarians and I hope my work can complement her achievement.

Needless to say, the libertarians, particularly those of Buchanan’s “Public Choice” school, are not happy. Not at all. They feel MacLean has misrepresented Buchanan and public choice theory and, worse, committed historical malfeasance by altering quotations and quoting out of context. There is a lot of dust in the air right now, and a lot of charges being thrown around. Rather than trying to sort out everything going on, I’ll focus on one particular question:

Was James M. Buchanan a Racist?

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Discrimination, Religion, and Libertarianism: It’s Not About the Wedding Cake


My mom told me a story once about being a little girl when she and my grandparents drove from their home in South Dakota to California. It was sometime in the 1940s, after the war, and she might have been ten years old or so. Lord knows how long that must have taken in those pre-Interstate Highway days. Obeying some rules of travel known only to her, my grandmother insisted that my mom sit in the front seat between the two adults for the entirety of the trip. My grandmother, with the reasonable patience for which the German people are known, spent a lot of time criticizing her daughter for not having Sitzfleisch.

As difficult (and boring for any normal 10-year-old girl) that trip must have been, it must have been immeasurably more difficult for African American travelers of the time. The South, of course, was legally segregated, but things were not any better in the North or the West. The law allowed any private business to refuse service to African Americans  simply because they were African Americans. When travelling, African Americans could never be sure if they would be refused service at the restaurant they stopped at for lunch, the gas station they stopped to refuel, or the motel they stopped in to rest. One resource they had was the Green Book, a guide that showed them the places where they would be welcome. As the introduction stated:

With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.

The legend on the cover has a rather ominous warning: “You may need it.” It was not even a matter of your kids going hungry because you can’t find dinner or sleeping in the car because you can’t find lodging. It was also a matter of avoiding a violent reception in an area where the police could not be counted on to enforce the law.

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Those Radicalized Immigrants: “Alternative Facts” From Fake Experts


This just in: the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of the Trump administration on the Muslim ban. Over at Breitbart, this news was greeted with the headline: “The Supreme Court Reinstates Trump Travel Ban from Muslim-Majority Countries!”  Well, not quite. First, calling it a “travel ban” is what got Trump into trouble with the Courts in the first place and the Administration tries hard to reign in The Donald when he foolishly tells the truth about it. Second, the Court did not “reinstate” the entire ban, indeed, they upheld parts the stay.. Finally, by the time this gets sorted out, the ban will have expired, the Administration will have to start all over again with a new order without passing GO and without collecting their 200 refugees at the border. In summation: apart from being wrong in nearly every single particular, Breitbart nailed it.

Let’s think about the line of reasoning the makes the Muslim ban so popular among the Alt-Right.  The basic argument looks pretty much like this:

Stop the illegal tide of immigration. Despite the secrecy of our Immigration Service and cooperating agencies on this subject—a secrecy utterly without justification and which could be desired only for concealing enormous irregularities—some of our Congressional spokesmen now claim that hundreds of thousands of immigrants, largely Muslim, are coming across our borders, legally and illegally. From my own studies of immigrants, I know that among them are many pro-Jihad. But all Muslim immigrants, Jihad and anti-Jihad, immediately after arrival are under strong pressure to side with the radical Muslim groups, and most of them will have to yield.

What can the history of the Alt-Right tell us about this line of reasoning?

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Frank Chodorov: Scrappy Libertarian, Crappy Oracle

Libertarians are a strange bunch. They are the most predictable of political thinkers since the answer to every social problem is the exact same thing: The cause of the problem is government and the solution is less government. Full stop.

You have probably never heard of Frank Chodorov (1887-1966). Born in New York City as Fishel Chodorowsky, he is considered one of the pioneer libertarians of the twentieth-century United States. At the very least, libertarians remember him for a letter he wrote to Bill Buckley’s National Review in 1956, wherein he declared, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical.”1 Chodorov’s fightin’ words reflected Libertarians’ delight in considering themselves rough-and-tumble, independent thinkers. I can’t help noticing however, that their fierce independent thinking often matches perfectly with powerful business and corporate interests. Chodorov, for example, first made his mark by busting a union in 1923. Union busting for freedom!

Chodorov is often credited with keeping the libertarian flame alive during the dark days of World War II. A staunch isolationist, Chodorov founded a small newsletter he named analysis which he published between 1944 and 1951 before it merged with Human Eventswhich is still going strong. analysis was a pure distillation of Chodorov’s libertarianism, his own vision with no compromises—this is what blogging was like in the 1940s. As historian George Nash wrote:

It is a vivid illustration both of the virtually underground character of much of the “classical liberal” movement in this period and of the perseverance of its devotees that this little journal appeared at all. Frank Chodorov was a practicing individualist; he produced his own magazine in a few rooms in an unpretentious building in Manhattan.

In his obituary to Chodorov, Murray Rothbard claimed that analysis was the one place where Chodorov could present his pure gospel of individualism. I thought therefore that reading through analysis might be an important part of the history I’m writing.

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Virginia Is for (Same-Race) Lovers

Ok, my title isn’t precisely what it says on our license plates:


But until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, as it was in 24 other states. Fifty years ago today, on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Today is Loving Day!

The case was Loving v. Virginia. If you wrote a novel whose centerpiece was a court case on marriage named “Loving v. Virginia” the editor would send the manuscript back to you with a note reading, “Contrived. Change the name.” But that was the name of the couple who challenged Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage.  As the kids say today, “For reals.” (The kids still say that, right?)

In the late 1950s, Richard, a white man, and Mildred, a black woman, fell in love and wanted to get married. Because it was illegal in Virginia for them to do so, they hopped on a train up to Washington, D.C. and got married there.


In Virginia, they were arrested. The case eventually reached U.S. Supreme Court which overturned Virginia’s miscegenation law in 1967.

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You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Racist

There is a brand new Pew Poll out that indicates that interracial marriage has increased five-fold  in the fifty years since the US Supreme Court found laws banning it unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. Of course, almost half of Republican voters in Mississippi think interracial marriage should still be illegal. Over at the Alt-Right site, American Renaissance they disapprove of interracial marriage (surprise!).


The rise in interracial marriage seems to belie an old racist idea summarized by the old cliché, “Birds of a feather flock together.” This idea is that it is natural for people of one race to separate themselves from those of a different race. Even today, scientific racists try to offer all kinds of arguments  about how natural race prejudice is. (I’ve published some criticisms of these kinds of arguments here and here.)

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William F. Buckley, Jr., the Respectable Right, and Human Equality


The right wing. Is there anything better than a visual pun?

The “Alt” in Alt-Right has a double meaning. On the one hand, “alt” is German for “old” and the Alt-Right claims to be the heirs to the isolationist right of pre-World War II America.  On the other, “alt” is also short for “alternative” making the Alt-Right the alternative to the mainstream right wing of American politics. So, you might ask the Alt-Right: what is the “mainstream” right of American politics to which thou art alternative?

You could write a several terabytes on trying to define such a vexed question and people have. Let’s take this handy summary provided by a recent book on conservative politics by George Hawley:

  • Conservatives call for limited, if any, government intervention in the economy.
  • Conservatives hold that tradition, particularly religious tradition, should guide public policy.
  • Conservatives are for a strong military and a strong American military presence in the world.

The Alt-Right holds itself as an alternative to these positions in various ways: Libertarians would claim that limited government might be an improvement over the status quo, but it is still inherently inferior to no government; Randians would claim that tradition, especially religious tradition, is no way to run society; isolationists would withdraw from the world rather than engage with it through our military.

Shifting our focus from the “alt” to the “right” we get a different question: what makes all these differing ideologies “right?” The answer is that both alt and mainstream right adhere to one common tenet: the rejection of “equality” as a supreme value. According to Hawley, the Left seeks equality as the highest value while the Right can and does hold other values as more important than equality. Political theorist Corey Robin argues that the mark of the Right is that it opposes the equal distribution of power. Only a certain kind of people should be making decisions in society; the rest are just not up to the task of governing. Hence, appeals to equality are suspect in all right wing discourse, whether alt or mainstream.

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The Racist Right and that Island in the Pacific

Trivia Question: What city (pop. over 100,000) is farthest away from any other city? The answer is….Honolulu. We don’t think of Honolulu as a remote city because it gets about 8,000,000 visitors a year. There are certainly other cities that are harder to get to. Hawai’i is both very, very remote from the world as well as very connected to the world. Which leads us to our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. You see, a federal judge blocked Trump’s latest Muslim Ban as unconstitutional. In an interview, Sessions assured conservatives the Trump Muslim ban will eventually be upheld by the Courts:

I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

Trump has lost three in a row on this issue, and the final disposition of the case appears to be a long way away. Rather than focusing on why the ban is a within the President’s power, Sessions chose instead to issue this weird remark about Hawai’i. So, it is worth trying to figure out why he would say such a weird thing.

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Leninist Libertarians and the Destruction of Everything


Steve Bannon, who has been pulling Trump’s strings, has hit some setbacks. He got booted from his post at the National Security Council and there are whispers that he’s feuding with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is suddenly very important in the administration. Still, there are reasons to believe that “Bannonism” will live on, even if Bannon has a reduced (or no) role in the administration. But what is “Bannonism?” Bannon’s agenda is outside mainstream politics and his “worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites.” Part of my goal in this blog is to show that Bannon’s ideology, or at least as much as we can see of it, has a specific history in the postwar American right.

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Future to the Back: So much Gorsuch!


Yes, I know this is my second post in a row about Gorsuch. I figure, when a guy is going to spend four decades on the Supreme Court, he’s worth talking about.

Let’s talk verbs for a minute: action words! Think about the difference between “inventing” and “discovering” If you’ve invented something, then you’ve created something new: something that did not exist before: so before J.K. Rowling invented it, Hogwarts did not exist. Whereas we say that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin: that mold was there before, all he did was find it. Novelists, painters, sculptors, architects, and even engineers create things. Scientists discover things.We talk about our branches of government with the same words:  Legislatures make policy. Judges find the law.

We run into problems however, when someone is inventing/creating something but claim to be discovering it. This is the problem with originalist jurisprudence. They think they are finding something but they are really creating something.

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